Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, describes the situation facing European Jewry today as filled with daily danger, "Jews are afraid to walk the streets… with Jewish signs (i.e. yarmulke). Synagogues, Jewish schools and kindergartens require barbed-wire fences and security and Jewish men, women and children are beaten up in broad daylight." An ocean away a “report by the human rights watchdog of the Organization of American States warns of a possible ‘threat to the life and physical integrity of the Jewish community in Venezuela’” by that county’s government. Two months ago a Tel Aviv University report on the state of Jewish security in the world concluded that 2009 was the worst since the Holocaust for antisemitic incidents.
We use the term “Jewish problem” as if it’s meaning and implications were obvious. Why a backlash against Diaspora Jews the result of the actions of Israel? Citizens of Irish extraction living in other countries were not targeted due to the actions of the Irish Republican Army. Why the Jews? How explain the knee-jerk anti-Jewish reaction in the Christian west?
The west’s Jewish Problem is theological in origin. It may most simply be described as an affront the result of our continuing existence within the unfolding history of the Christian world.
From its very beginnings Christianity defined itself successor to Judaism: With the arrival of Jesus Judaism was, according to Christian theology, superseded, should have vanished. How reconcile that the Jews, the designated object of Jesus’ messianic mission, failed to even recognize him and his mission? What does that mean for Christianity as theological inheritor of Jewish history and tradition?
In the fourth century Augustine rationalized that Jewish survival “in misery and homeless” was their “punishment” for rejecting Jesus. He explained that their survival, according to God’s plan, was to serve as “witness” to the Truth of Christianity. “… the Jews who slew Him . . . are thus by their own Scriptures a testimony to us that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ.”
Augustine’s description of Jewish survival as punishment and witness provide a theological explanation for the survival of Judaism, and the continued, if limited, survival of Jews. But the explanation also points to doubt in those prophesies at the very heart of Christian belief. How else explain the need for Jewish validation, “that we have not forged the prophecies about Christ”?
According to the gospels “the Jews” are guilty of deicide in the death of Jesus. Matthew goes further in having those supposedly guilty accept responsibility not just for themselves, but for all future generations: “Then the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children,’” (Matthew 27.25).
The combination of Augustine’s existential doubt and Matthew’s incendiary description of the trial and death of Jesus are the ground upon which the Jewish people were victim to centuries of blame, persecution and death. The result of this volatile combination, doubt and deicide, is that the potential for violence towards Jews is always present, even if not openly expressed.
With the 17th century Enlightenment the theological Jewish Problem morphed into a secular Jewish question, and anti-Judaism gradually transformed into its secular variant, antisemitism. An important result of the secularization of the problem was that even the limited “protection” provided by Augustine’s justification for Jewish survival no longer applied. The Jews, particularly following their 19th century “emancipation,” were now a nation like others, but strangers, outsiders, “Other” to the west: a nation apart.
Emancipation increasingly gave rise to political and social resistance. As non-Christians, Jews were not really members of the western national community (nation, people, volk), so did not qualify for equal rights and citizenship. Opposition grew into political parties encompassing the broad social spectrum, religious and secular, conservative, liberal and socialist. As described by Dr. Kantor above, Jews were increasingly the victims of physical assault and social ostracization. Several antisemitic incidents were national in scope and caught the attention of the international media. The kidnapping by the Vatican of Edgardo Mortara in Italy, the trials of Dreyfus in France and Beilis in Russia; and the lynching in the United States of Leo Frank by a mob including a former governor, a superior court judge, the son of a US senator, and led by a future aspirant for president of the United States.
But even these high profile warnings failed to hint at what would result from the contribution of Science to the definition of What is a Jew.
American eugenics aspired to improve America’s population stock by selective human breeding. Long before National Socialism in Germany American eugenicists promoted eliminating the “unworthy” by imposing immigration restrictions, sterilization and euthanasia. Among those Congress barred by restrictive immigration law was the Jews. Twenty years later, and unmoved by their plight, America n policy condemned Europe’s Jews to Auschwitz; and sterilization was still in use as a means of population “betterment” in the United States well into the 1970’s. The application of euthanasia to achieve eugenic goals was left to the Germans to perfect.
German race science owed much to American eugenics, and particularly to the active support and assistance of major American eugenicists. They admired and supported Hitler, envied Germany’s ability to fully apply eugenic principles to entire human populations. After the war they even intervened to save the lives, reputations and jobs of German academics active in the Holocaust (for an excellent source on American eugenics, see Edwin Black’s War Against the Weak).
In Hitler science and religion came together to address the Jewish Problem. Typically dismissed as a neo-pagan antisemite, he was both a product of the west’s history of prejudice and persecution, and also a self-affirmed and life-long tithe paying Catholic. In Mein Kamp, written a decade before he took power in Germany Hitler wrote, “[d]efending myself against the Jew is fighting for the work of the Lord!”
The Final Solution of the Jewish Problem was, therefore, both an act of racial hygiene, cleansing the human race of the Jewish virus, and a religious obligation to solve once and for ever Christendom’s centuries-long Problem.
As individuals and as a people we Jews strongly believe in the power of education to promote social harmony and religious tolerance. The European Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League represent this belief, are our post-Holocaust shlichim to the nations. Before and during the years of Shoah German-Jewish philosopher Martin Buber was Education’s most prominent advocate. But statistical studies are ambiguous regarding its success, even in ordinary times of relative social quiet and international peace. But the point of our discussion is not the “ordinary,” but the ever-present risk of the extraordinary.
Post WWI global depression, German resentment at that nation’s perception at having lost a war they were convinced they should have won, except for the Jews “stab in the back:” Who could have foreseen that those events would result in the cataclysm of the Holocaust?
We Jews live an uncertain existence in our Diaspora. We live in the hope that education will eventually eradicate antisemitism; that Christianity can and will reform, accept us, accept Judaism as a separate legitimate religion and not the fossil remains of that which Christianity believes it supplanted. Education has not succeeded to date, and it is only necessary to read prominent Catholic theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther’s warning to appreciate its unlikely future success: “Anti-Judaism is too deeply embedded in the foundations of Christianity to be rooted out entirely without destroying the whole structure (Faith and Fratricide, 1974, p. 94).”
At what point in societal frustration does the background hum of benign antisemitism resurface as lethal antisemitism, give rise to another charismatic leader intent on, once and for all solving the Jewish Problem, eradicating Jewish life entire from the Diaspora? There is no statistical model to provide warning. We can only use history as guide to the future. And nearly two thousand years of experience has, according to some estimates, resulted in one out of every two Jews born during that period being murdered by our hosts.
We can accept, reluctantly or willingly, that the extraordinary circumstances of severe economic collapse following the First World War pried open the floodgates to the west’s suppressed demons regarding the Jews. We are compelled to recognize that, with the technological advances in computers and instruments of mass murder developed since the Holocaust, that a future effort to solve the west’s Jewish Problem, to define Who is a Jew “back to a single grandparent,” will certainly be far more successful than that nearly “final solution” of the twentieth century.
Is another Holocaust assured, no. Is it likely? What does History suggest?